Is sales onboarding a problem for you? One of the great frustrations for sales management, HR leaders, and CFOs is the interminable time it takes to get a newly hired salesperson productive. Usually onboarding performance, if it is measured at all, is tied to reducing the metric for ramp time to full productivity: the average time (in months) it takes for a newly hired salesperson to achieve their annualized quota.
According to SBI research, the average cost of a mis-hired salesperson exceeds $500,000. These costs include recruiting, salary, benefits, severance, and lost customer opportunities. CFOs are now looking at onboarding from the perspective of a new time-to-revenue process. With this attention comes a willingness to invest in the core dimensions of onboarding. Because of this, onboarding has recently come under increasing scrutiny. How do you know if this is an issue you need to tackle in the coming year?
As a former naval officer who spent time at sea on a destroyer north of the Arctic Circle in a winter storm, I can tell you what a bow wave looks like. And it is scary. That is precisely the sort of threat sales leaders face. Businesses are growing. Corporate strategies call for expanded market share or new market penetration. Internal talent assessment efforts lead to the need for new people with higher and different sales skills. All of these demand generators mean more new sellers are coming to your business.
The process to find new people is expensive. The process to evaluate and hire them is expensive. Expectations run rampant about what they can produce and how quickly they can produce it. And so the fix is suggested: “Let’s improve our onboarding program. How hard can that be?” Plenty.
How to Take Onboarding from Negligence to Nirvana
It’s almost impossible to believe, but often growth companies neglect their onboarding program in favor of other areas that seem more pressing or strategic. New reps are turning over quickly in the meat grinder of high expectations combined with poor onboarding.
Onboarding new employees is a huge challenge. Every department wants its own processes, approach, content, tools, and time lines. The sales function is particularly demanding in this regard. For good reason. Sales is primarily responsible for revenue generation. So any delay due to substandard onboarding has a material impact on financial results.
When you add to this challenge that many in sales leadership do not fully understand what it takes to get top talent productive quickly, the frustration is complete. But there is a way out. Follow these steps and your onboarding capability will go from negligent to nirvana.
Step 1: Diagnose Root Cause on Current State
Businesses suffering from high turnover, long onboarding periods, or both should conduct a due-diligence assessment. Diagnosing the root cause will help you narrow down the problem at hand so you can bring to bear the key solution approaches.
Step 2: Decide Who Will Own Onboarding
The onboarding function, previously entrusted to HR in conjunction with sales trainers and sometimes sales administrators, is usually one of those processes that is owned by everyone and no one at the same time. Unless that lack of accountability is rectified, any meaningful or lasting improvements will not be possible.
Step 3: Design the Onboarding Plan
Every newly hired salesperson should have an actual onboarding plan. Something they can call their own. Typically, these plans are embedded in a software application or a custom Microsoft Excel spreadsheet, or built in a cloud-based tool such as Asana. In any case, the plan contains tasking and guidance the employee needs to execute as individual onboarding steps. It should also boast the following:
- Self-service. The plan should be built so new hires can administer it themselves with easy oversight by their onboarding coach. Empower the employee to advance their progress and take the initiative.
- Situationally applied knowledge. The plan should enable salespeople to do more than just check boxes and take tests. You cannot learn anything in a classroom or online without activating that learning in the field. Too many times onboarding is read this book; study this marketing material; pass this test about the product. The key to making knowledge stick is having reps apply it situationally.
- Personalization. Each salesperson is different. Jamming someone into a generic onboarding plan impacts adoption. Ensure each plan is custom to the role and, where possible, to the individual employee.
- Progressive difficulty. The plan should have increasingly challenging assignments. It should start with shadowing assignments, followed by performing selling tasks under observation, then collaborating with a fast ramp onboarding partner, and lastly, independent accomplishment.
Step 4: Build the Onboarding Program
Now that you have a compelling onboarding plan, don’t stop there. You should wrap that plan up into a larger program that defines onboarding as a unique cross-functional company capability. We suggest that, at a minimum, you adopt the following dimensions for your onboarding program:
- Define everyone’s roles. This is a must, due to the cross-functional nature of onboarding. It is shocking how many companies try to pull off the onboarding program without some form of a RACI (responsible, accountable, consulted, informed) diagram.
- Assign a fast-ramp coach. Establish a one-to-one relationship between a newly hired rep and a seasoned rep, the latter serving as a dedicated mentor for the whole onboarding period. The purpose of this coach is to reduce the friction a new hire faces in navigating the organization, give them the benefit of sales excellence from a star performer, and accelerate their development.
- Use a complete set of onboarding tools. Onboarding programs should contain a complete set of tools, frameworks, and guides. Using these regularly and improving them over time will yield great results. Key tools include an onboarding checklist, an onboarding performance assessment, a customer-focused onboarding scorecard, a content matrix, dedicated new hire learning paths in a learning management system, and a RACI diagram.
- Make the sales manager accountable. Too often sales managers see onboarding as somebody else’s duty. They see their role as waiting until the person is fully trained, after which they take over. This is a toxic approach. From Day One, sales managers should hold themselves accountable for the success of the new hire’s onboarding experience.
- Promote quick wins. Nothing succeeds like success. Positive momentum will lead to greater traction, which will result in reduced ramp times. By prompting small victories, new hires will adopt new behaviors more quickly.
- Celebrate failure. This may seem to conflict with the previous item but it does not. People learn more from failure than they do success. The more failure you celebrate, the more risk you are willing to take because you know you are not going to be punished for trying something different or new.
- Integrate role-playing. Role playing and scenario-based Q&A are the best ways to build core selling skills. It is frightening how few onboarding programs have built this into their programs. Some applications—such as the Rehearsal VRP video role-play training platform—really make this come alive. When companies formalize role playing, they realize big improvements in ramp time.
- Gamify the experience. The sales environment is uniquely suited to gamification, which rewards employees (e.g., with points, countdowns, leaderboards, and even virtual currency) for accomplishing prescribed learning tasks. Early adopters of gamification report significant improvements in ramp productivity. It works particularly well when sales teams are spread across wide geographic areas. It’s also a good way to improve the use of customer relationship management.
- Implement a testing and certification program. This is a key way to track the progress of new hires and compare new hires against each other and their predecessors. This approach will enable you to pinpoint areas where additional development will be needed.
Step 5: Roll Out the Onboarding Process
With plan in hand and program built, the next step is to consider the need for process. If the onboarding process is not defined, nothing you do will be repeatable or reliable:
- Document it. Get the process down on paper. Everyone should know the phases and exit criteria.
- Incorporate ongoing improvement. Real-time improvements are more effective than end-of-year assessments. Assume that everything can and should be optimized. Get feedback from new hires and stakeholders. Test assumptions. Iterate the process even for those who are halfway through.
- Build it to scale. A process that works one person at a time won’t survive contact with the waves of new hires coming your way. Ensure what you have built can accommodate multiple, simultaneous new hires without bringing the organization to its knees.
- Get the new hires high, wide, and deep inside the organization. Have executives take active roles. Onboarding is a team responsibility. Get new employees mapped to all of the organizational mavens— those most connected to the sales function and its success.
- Measure differently. Every process needs measurement. The key metric of ramp time to full sales productivity is a lagging indicator. Behavioral indicators let you know how things are going right now. For example: Are new hires reading required materials? Updating the onboarding plan frequently? Coming prepared to each interaction? Leading indicators also reveal how you are doing in real time. For example: Are new hires getting high scores on the learning exams? Performing well in role plays? Coming up with compelling proposals?
Step 6: Make Your Customer the Center of the Onboarding Program
Most companies stop when they’ve taken care of the plan, the program, and the process. And that’s a mistake. You must keep going to take your onboarding capability from mediocre to masterful.
For instance, most onboarding experiences are not customer-focused; instead, they usually take an inside-out view. World-class selling organizations put the customer at the center by tying onboarding success to the new hire’s ability to satisfy customer need. You do this by baking the following dimensions into the onboarding program:
- Who. New hire understands who needs the solution. Product features and competitive advantages are presented relative to one or more buyer personas.
- When. New hire learns how to identify which stage a prospect is in relative to a reasonably predictable buying process.
- How. New hire learns how to probe buyers regarding a series of microdecisions that are tied to a final purchase decision.
Step 7: Dimension Your Onboarding Program Content
I have seen many companies deploy onboarding as I have just described. And they benefit from the improvement. Toward the end of Year One, though, the improvements start to level out. The question then becomes, “What’s next?” The answer is usually easy: content.
Great learning content is hard to produce. For that reason, most companies avoid tackling it as part of their onboarding improvement initiative. Eventually, this will get in the way. When it does, ensure your onboarding content focuses on the following areas:
- Solution/product. Newly hired salespeople must know how the product can solve the buyer’s problems. To do this for onboarding, develop one page product portfolio guides that cover product market segment, buying persona, the market problem, and how that problem is solved.
- Customer. New hires with a detailed level of customer knowledge are able to anticipate needs, solve problems, and align solutions.
- Competition. Most competitive intelligence focuses on features and functions. Big mistake. This aspect of your content should address how the competition sells. How they position. How and with whom they go to market.
- Process. Process self-sufficiency is a must. Your content must enable the new hire to master key sales processes such as account management, opportunity management, relationship management, and more. But if you are using old and tired courseware, you will bore students rather than educate them.
Step 8: Make Your Onboarding Program Agile
An agile onboarding program does not treat everything as a regimented series of highly structured events that retard right-brain thinking. Instead, the agile approach promotes mastery.
It rewards creativity and initiative. It enables new hires to learn and apply new capabilities every day. For instance, agile onboarding:
- Layers knowledge. Subjects are not covered completely in one session. Enough information is absorbed to support learning of the next subject.
- Sequences content. Topics are revisited at increasingly more advanced levels. Basic skills can be applied early without waiting to complete the entire curriculum.
- Sets progressive expectations. It makes the challenge greater over time from accomplishing developmental tasks at the start to closing orders that deliver revenue at the end.
- Embeds the subject-matter expert view. Contributions from internal (and even external) subjectmatter experts are delivered to enhance each required discipline—industry insight, marketing expertise, customer relationship management skills, proposal writing, and so forth.
Next Step: Talent Development
Some firms that have best-inclass onboarding programs suffer a performance dip because the onboarding experience is not connected to ongoing talent development. In these cases, the newly onboarded employee begins to fall behind because the intensity and focus of the onboarding experience is not matched with something similar for the general population of sales reps. In these cases, the skills and confidence built in the first crucial four to six months degrade and have to be rebuilt.
Instead, companies should have a robust and interconnected talent development program that picks up right where onboarding leaves off. The onboarding graduate should have a personalized development plan, assigned coach, and new formal knowledge paths. Using this new content, process, and assistance, the sales rep can take what they have learned or develop skills in which they have become proficient to a deeper level.
Now you know what you have and how to achieve the ideal. Equally important, you know how to measure your program’s effectiveness. Your future depends on the investment you make today in your newly hired reps’ success.